Health experts reveal how to identify whether workplace burnout and what to do about it to feel both mentally and physically healthier.


You’re under a lot of stress

“Stress is the main reason burnout occurs,” Serani says. “But more importantly, it’s the kind of stress that worsens burnout. Burnout is at its worst when it’s chronic stress, meaning long term situations are experienced.” Stress activates the body’s physical, physiological, and psychological systems, says Dee O’Neill, a licensed professional counselor and head of executive and corporate solutions at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Eventually, the human body and brain reach a breaking point: burnout,” she says. An overwhelming workload, demanding managers, toxic culture, or a boss who is a psychopath can all contribute to chronic workplace stress.

You have feelings of exhaustion, irritability, and can’t sleep

In terms of physical symptoms, burnout probably won’t come suddenly. It will happen little by little, possibly without you realizing until you’re in the thick of it. Burnout can become one of the surprising things that drains your energy. “Burnout often begins in a slow, undetectable way,” Serani says. “First gaining traction with intermittent irritability and fatigue—changes in sleeping and eating, and mild physical complaints like aches and pains. Then it gradually builds over time.” You might also experience stomach upset and headaches. O’Neill agrees that the negative stress that causes burnout is characterized by anxiety, irritability, and fatigue as well.

You have trouble concentrating

“Burnout raises the stress hormone, cortisol, which negatively impacts your mind and body,” Serani says. In addition to physical symptoms, the surge of cortisol can also cause mental issues like inattention and difficulty concentrating, she says. This can make it even more difficult to perform at work. “Because stress levels dampen your ability to concentrate and problem solve, burnout can feel like it hits you like a ton of bricks,” she says. Here’s how you can boost your concentration with food.

This is because with a stress response, a different part of your brain takes over. “In our brain, the frontal lobes, right behind our forehead, is where higher-order thinking is facilitated—things like complex problem-solving, decision-making, and emotional regulation,” says O’Neill. “In contrast, two small structures deep in the brain called the amygdala have the job of constantly scanning your environment for threats and reacting for survival. Under stressful situations, there’s an ‘either/or’ phenomenon. Either the reasoning/logical thinking part of your brain is online, or your reactive/survival part of your brain is in charge. Both cannot be fully firing at the same time.” So when you’re in survival mode, your higher-order thinking suffers.

You need to lift the pressure

If this sounds like you, there are basically two ways to address burnout. You can try to reduce your stress response to the job, or you can try to change the job itself. For the latter, O’Neill identifies two ways to manage your response to stress: reframing and recharging. “Reframing is a simple technique to refocus your mindset and emotions,” O’Neill says. “When we can shift from automatic negative thinking and emotions to consider more options, we change our biochemistry. Brain imaging studies show increased activation in reasoning parts of the brain, and decreased activation in the emotional parts of the brain.” If you’re mindful of every time you think “I’m so stressed” or “I hate my job,” you can change your thinking to “I’m being challenged” or “I can do this.”

You can also try recharging. “The way to quickly and effectively recharge our brain and body is surprisingly simple: Focus on mindful breathing,” O’Neill says. “Our breath is the bridge between our body and brain: It controls how the longest nerve in our body, the vagus nerve, is activated. Practice making your breathing pattern slower and deeper, bringing your attention to both your inhalation and your exhalation. This is the ‘on’ switch for the relaxation response.” Serani adds that this type of “recharging” self-care also requires healthy foods, good sleep, and exercise. Consider these simple tweaks to make your workspace healthier, as well.

Stress is a hard-wired response, but once you are aware of it, you can practice ways to rewire that response, O’Neill says. “This is the best way to strengthen our resilience and avoid burnout,” she says.

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Published on The Healthy April 10, 2020